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ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Jones says he is an American Indian person first and an artist second.
That comes through clearly in his solo exhibition, “Tom Jones: Here We Stand,” on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg through Aug. 27.
Jones is an artist, writer, curator and educator who’s been documenting his tribe, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, through photographs for more than 20 years. Organized by the Museum of Wisconsin Art, the exhibition is Jones’ first major retrospective, featuring more than 100 works from 1998 to 2021.
It was curated by Jane L. Aspinwall, senior curator of photography at the MFA, and Graeme Reid, director of exhibitions at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.
Jones was at the museum to give a media tour when the show opened in May. The exhibit notes that Jones is not coming from a place of anger or to make the viewer feel ashamed — his intention is to illuminate the truth.
The exhibition opens with black-and-white photography that Jones created during graduate school at Columbia College in Chicago. He’d make the three-hour trip on a bus to Black River Falls, Wisconsin — the epicenter of the Ho-Chunk nation — to document people living normal, modern lives. His grandfather is a particular muse.
Members of the tribe are shown in their homes wearing modern clothes, surrounded by personal items such as traditional blankets and artworks, lots of family photographs and televisions and stereo equipment. In one photo, a young girl is dressed in ceremonial garb while holding a Super Soaker-style water gun. These works are a refutation of the cliched images of Native Americans dressed in feathers and beads, made popular in the 19th century by Anglo photographer Edward Curtiss.
But that is not to imply that Ho-Chunk tradition has been lost. On the contrary, on the wall in the same gallery is a photograph of Chief Clayton Winneshiek riding a horse, wearing a headdress.
In fact, Jones had access to certain ceremonies in which photographs are typically taboo, like a sacred ritual in a medicine lodge. Two of these photographs appear on a bright green wall in the same gallery, making the leap from the black-and-white works to full color. The works are presented on walls painted in vibrant green and electric blue, which are traditional Ho-Chunk colors.
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In the series “Dear America,” Jones appropriated vintage postcards from his extensive collection as backgrounds for mixed media works on which he wrote or embroidered the lyrics to “(America) My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” He viewed the postcards as a form of propaganda so his intention was to create his own spin, he said. They reveal a lot of the grisly acts perpetrated on Native Americans through history, like the mass execution of 38 Iroquois and Ho-Chunk people and the Indian boarding school where his mother and grandfather were sent.
On an adjacent wall is the “Remnants” series, in which Jones photographed the carpets at more than 100 Indian casinos, paired with representations of Native Americans from as early was the 1500s that are etched in glass. They include scenes of the smallpox-infected blankets given to Natives by colonists.
With the series “Studies in Cultural Appropriation,” Jones embellishes traditional Native American beading, fabrics and patterns under a tailor’s cutout of a white man wearing a suit. He said he sought to represent all of the Native tribes while commenting on non-Native appropriation and taking of their fashion.
In a square structure within one of the galleries are Jones’ documentations of the memorials of veterans their families put up at the Black River Falls Pow Wow. Against grave markers are photographs, folded American flags and, very often, packs of cigarettes as offerings of tobacco. Jones pointed out that Ho-Chunks have fought for the United States in every war except for the War of 1812, when they fought for the British.
Powerful portraits of Ho-Chunk people set against black backgrounds make up the series “Strong Unrelenting Spirits.” He embroiders beads in Ho-Chunk patterns around his subjects, an act that has special significance.
Jones said that when he was younger, he went with his mother to see a Sioux medicine man. In the darkened room, women began singing, telling the spirits to come in. (Sioux are related to Ho-Chunks, so his mother understood them.) Jones said orbs of light began floating around the room.
“So (the embroidery) represents our ancestors and how they’re watching over us,” he said. “And so I’m using these Ho-Chunk designs to kind of give this aura or sense of the ancestors around them.”
The woman in green is his mother, JoAnn Jones, the first president of the Ho-Chunk nation and associate judge of the Ho-Chunk Nation Trial Court. She is clearly an important influence on Jones, and on July 22, she will join the artist for a conversation at the museum.
With the “Native” Commodity series, Jones captures the way the culture was adopted for tourism in the Wisconsin Dells, an area known for theme parks. He photographed the city in 2005, when it was home to motels with names like Black Hawk, Arrowhead and Indian, with imagery to accompany them. He said that a lot of that imagery has disappeared now.
There is even more to explore is “Here We Stand,” a mark of how prolific Jones is. It will be exciting to see what he does next.
What to know before see “Here We Stand”
“Tom Jones: Here We Stand” is on view through Aug. 27. On Saturday, July 22, at 1 p.m. Jones will give an artist talk with his mother, JoAnn Jones. Included with museum admission: $12-$22, free for kids 6 and younger. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE. 727-896-2667. mfastpete.org.